Anna Hope, co founder of EcoMotive, reflects on the impact that building her own home has had on her life.
It sounds like a bit of a cliché doesn’t it? But then again, when my partner Jackson and I heard about a local group trying to protect a plot of land from the commercial developers, we really could never have imagined the journey it would take us on.
At that time (back in 2000) we had been thinking about getting a place of our own, but even on our full time salaries we couldn’t afford to buy anything half decent. We knew we could raise about £90,000 with a mortgage but properties in our area were already going for quite a bit more than that. So we spent a few months scouting around the back streets of Bristol looking for something to renovate – thus far to no avail.
We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. A leaflet came through our door advertising a community group that was just forming. The group was opposing a planning application for a development of 35 homes on a brownfield site in our area and was pulling together an alternative proposal for a self build project on the site.
We went along to the meeting to find out more and met a wonderful array of people from the area who were determined to use their skills and energy to improve the local area. We were drawn to get involved – it felt great to be part of such a positive movement for change and to really feel part of our community. Over the next few months we all met weekly, consulting with people in the area to develop plans for the site which included individually-designed self build homes, social housing, employment space and a community venue.
When the opportunity to sign up for a self build plot came up, it seemed obvious that this was the perfect solution to our housing situation. Having the support, energy and momentum of the community group and the other self builders who were signing up, it felt a very natural thing to do, even though at the time there was a lot of risk and uncertainty involved. “From never having even put up a shelf myself I had to learn everything from scratch”I don’t think we had even been granted planning permission when we signed the contracts to buy the land. Luckily it all came together and the group was successful in buying the site and getting planning permission for the proposed development.
There was quite a bit of bureaucracy to get through before we could actually start building, and in the meantime there was the issue of keeping the site secure. A few of the self builders moved onto site in static caravans – saving money on rent payments while also forming a proto-community on the site. The caravans overheated in summer and were ice-cold in winter… one year the water pipes froze and we had to wash in the dilapidated office building across the other side of the yard. We would gather in each other’s caravans to keep warm, and in the summer we would share meals together outside, rigging up sun shades using tarp and even simple outdoor solar showers using coiled up hosepipes on the caravan roofs. I now have rather rosy memories of these early days – undoubtedly life was quite extreme and we were frequently exhausted with juggling our day jobs and building the homes. But there was a true camaraderie among the residents and the nature of living in a tiny home but with a shared and secure outdoor space meant that we saw a lot of our neighbours and naturally helped each other out.
Building our home took around four years – mostly working evenings and weekends alongside our jobs. We managed to do almost all of the work ourselves, with the help of a few amazing friends who stepped in here and there.“People feel empowered to take individual or collective action when they see that something needs to change” From never having even put up a shelf myself I had to learn everything from scratch. We built using a timber stud frame structure, which is simple to put together and easy to adapt if mistakes have been made. We prepared about 100 pieces of wall sections, which we stacked up in piles and then put together like a giant 3D jigsaw!
Being able to work alongside others who were doing something similar was definitely a great support. We were each building our own home to our own design, but there were common elements and I remember frequently going over to our neighbours’ houses to see how they were getting on and whether they had any tips.
“Be the change… Build the change!”Once we had finished building, we still had (and have) lots of people wandering through the site asking what it was all about and how they could do something similar. Through our experience, my partner and I wanted to find ways to create these kinds of opportunities elsewhere. This led to us collaborating with others to set up a social enterprise that could do just that. Our company, Ecomotive, now offers tours, training and advice to people wanting to set up or join a group build project and we are also working with local councils to develop more opportunities for these kinds of projects across the country.
The experience of those early days in the caravans has stayed with us and has inspired one of our other projects – SNUG homes. We’ve been developing a design for a simple modular home that could be completed by the owner at a very affordable price. Our vision is to help people create SNUG home communities, compact homes with beautiful balconies and terraces where the emphasis is on the outdoors living as much as the indoors.
So back to the bit about self build changing your life – well back in 2000 I really didn’t imagine that I would end up running my own company and leading self build tours and workshops. But maybe even more importantly, I look around me and see people who have grown in confidence and self-belief, and a neighbourhood where people feel empowered to take individual or collective action when they see that something needs to change. You’ve probably heard of the phrase “Be the change you want to see in the world” but as someone rather aptly said at one of our recent self build workshops: “Be the change… Build the change!”